Welcome to the point of the summer when I don’t remember why I chose a career in cooking when I only want to eat about five things — tomatoes, melon, iced coffee and/or drinks, and popsicles — until the heat and humidity recede. The fifth, pasta with homemade basil pesto, is a craving that arrives like clockwork every July. It usually comes with very specific instructions, a list of everything I think tastes good with, near, or stirred into pesto pasta, things like white beans, grilled and marinated zucchini, halved cherry tomatoes, and bocconcini (or tinier!) mozzarella. And that’s it, that’s my whole menu for the rest of July. I’ll come back when I’m interesting again, okay?
… Fine, here’s the thing: I’ve never written up a recipe here for basil pesto with few bells or whistles because whenever I want to share a recipe for something really basic, I tend to talk myself out of it. Doesn’t the internet have enough pesto recipes, Deb? Why speak if you’re not adding something new to the conversation? This is my constant internal monologue. And yet! I do keep notes for how I make pesto on my computer to refer to every July because almost every recipe I find on front-page Google results is missing information I need, like a weight measurement for basil (good luck finding two cups of basil leaves that weigh the same or guessing how much of a larger plant you’d need for a couple cups of leaves), an accurate estimate of the amount of olive oil you’ll need, a reminder to please toast your pine nuts for maximum flavor, and, most importantly, the amount it makes and the amount of pasta the yield can generously coat. Yes, what I just described is called “a recipe.” And yes, this is a recipe blog. Maybe it’s time to finally close this loop.
A few more notes/tips:
– Pesto comes from the Italian word pestare, which means “to pound” or “to crush,” as pestos were traditionally made in a large mortar with a pestle. Strictly speaking, pesto is a generic term for anything that’s made by pounding or grinding, something I take great liberty with on SK (see: walnut pesto, almond pesto) but basil pesto, pesto alla genovese, is so popular, it’s usually what comes to mind when people think of pesto.
– Technique: I use a food processor but you can absolutely make it in a mortar and pestle, or with a mezzaluna, or just a regular knife. Just mince, mince, mince away at each stage instead of grinding.
– Ingredients: Pine nuts (pignoli) are the traditional nut here but I find that almonds also work well. Just toast them first: Spread evenly on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 5 to 8 minutes, tossing once or twice for even color. The cheese is usually Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano.
– Pasta shape: The most traditional shape for pesto is trofie, a short, thin, twisted pasta from Liguria made with semolina (hard wheat) flour. The shape is rolled by hand — no pasta machine required (hooray). I cannot find the photos anywhere now but I made it a few years ago. However, I never have great luck with hand-formed shapes because it’s hard to keep them all the same thickness, which leads to some pieces overcooking while others take forever to cook. I have faith you’ll do better; here’s a good lead.
– Make sure your basil leaves are dry, or the mixture gets kind of mucky looking (yes, I’m a professional writer, why do you ask?).
– Don’t skip the salt. Absolutely skip the lemon. I always say that I think we often add salt when we’d be better off adding acidity to foods. Here, I feel the opposite; skip the lemon, which is not traditional and discolors the basil. Season it well.
– Always leave some cheese on the side, because you’ll want extra to finish your dish with.
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Pasta with Pesto Genovese (Basil Pesto)
- 1 pound (455 grams) dried pasta, any shape (shown here: gemelli; more traditional: trofie)
- 2 ounces (55 grams) aged parmesan or pecorino romano
- 2 to 3 garlic cloves
- 1/4 cup (35 grams) toasted pine nuts
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Heaped 4 cups fresh basil leaves (3 ounces or 85 grams), from approximately a 5-6-ounce bundle with stems
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) olive oil, plus more as needed
Add garlic to empty food processor bowl and pulse a few times, until roughly chopped. Add pine nuts and pulse several times, until chopped very small, but don’t run the machine so long that it becomes a seed butter. Add a 1/2 teaspoon salt, several grinds of black pepper, and basil leaves, and run machine until basil leaves are finely chopped. With the machine running, drizzle in olive oil. Add 1/4 cup parmesan and pulse a couple times to mix. Add more salt to taste — I like between 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons Diamond brand (less of any other brand) kosher salt total. Because I use it primarily as a pasta sauce, I want it well-seasoned.
By hand: Grate cheese on the small holes of a box grater. Finely chop garlic and pine nuts together on a cutting board. Add basil leaves and continue to chop until they’re minced. Scrape into a large bowl, add salt and pepper, and drizzle in olive oil, stirring. Add cheese, stir to combine. Season with additional salt to taste.
Both methods: You can use this right away or keep it in the fridge for up to a week.
To assemble: Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. We do not finish this sauce with pasta water over heat (which cooks it further) so aim for the final doneness you prefer. Drain and transfer to a large bowl. I usually let it cool a bit from here because I like pesto on lukewarm or room temperature pasta. When you’re ready, add half of pesto sauce and stir to coat, then add more, a spoonful at a time, until you pasta is as sauced as you like. Add a few drizzles of olive oil if needed to keep sauce moving. Finish with extra parmesan and serve as-is or with a few extras (see below).
Extras: I usually serve pasta with pesto with white beans, halved cherry tomatoes, and bocconcini (or tinier) mozzarella, and grilled and marinated zucchini, either to eat alongside or to stir in, your choice. To make the zucchini, cut a couple zucchini (or shown here, pattypan squash, hoping that flower-shaped slices would entice my zucchini-resistant kids) into thin slices; drizzle with oil, salt, and pepper. Grill or broil until dark brown in spots on both sides. Toss with salt, pepper, 1 to 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, and 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and a spoonful of capers. Serve at room temperature. P.S. Sometimes I entirely skip the pasta and just put this pesto on the beans, zucchini, tomatoes, and mozzarella. This has a similar flavor profile.